The turn-of-the-century townhouse off Washington's Dupont Circle, partially hidden by trees, that once housed the office of Lafayette Ronald Hubbard, is so unassuming you could easily miss it. A small sign on the lawn is the only indication that 1812 19th Street NW is actually a museum dedicated to the history of Scientology—the religion that Hubbard founded, and that's been made famous by the likes of John Travolta and Tom Cruise—and is open to the public free of charge. On a pleasant evening after work in September, I paid a visit to what the museum describes as "the landmark location of the first Church of Scientology where writer, explorer and founder L. Ron Hubbard worked from 1957 to 1960 and established a legacy that increasingly influences human rights, religion, literature and education."
I was met by Sharyn Runyon, a casually dressed middle-aged woman with short hair and an abrupt, slightly imperious manner, who manages the house and leads the tours. I launched into some standard questions: How many visitors do you get? Are they mostly tourists or locals? Runyon cut me off, placing both hands on my shoulders. "Let's take the tour," she said.
We started in the first-floor parlor, where two rooms are devoted to photographic displays of Hubbard's life story. He was an Eagle Scout. He was a fraternity member (Phi Theta Xi, an engineering frat) at George Washington University. He was in the Explorers Club. And so forth. In 1932, Hubbard paid for a sailing expedition to the Caribbean by advertising in a local paper for "adventurous young men with wanderlust." The ad worked. "In the middle of the Depression he got all these people to pay $50 to go to the Caribbean," Runyon noted proudly. Hubbard got to go for free. From what I knew of Hubbard and financial contributions, I didn't find this anecdote surprising.
Curiously omitted from the exhibit were some of the more dramatic episodes of Hubbard's time on 19th Street. In 1958, the Food and Drug Administration conducted a midnight raid on the house, carting away thousands of suspicious pills. These proved to be vitamins. Five years later, the FDA returned, this time on a hunt for a device called the "E-Meter," an electronic contraption with two empty metal cylinders at the end. Scientologists, the FDA claimed, had been falsely promoting the E-Meter as a medical device.
Neither of these episodes represented the sort of relationship Hubbard wished to have with the federal government when he located his organization in Washington. An active, if often one-sided, letter writer, Hubbard penned unanswered missives to numerous public figures, including President John F. Kennedy, to whom he offered assistance in the fight against Communism. He also wrote frequently to the FBI, which proved to be no more responsive as a pen pal. In fact, only in 1977 did the FBI finally venture into Scientology, and even then it was just to conduct another raid, this time because church members had broken into an IRS office to see what files were being kept on their organization. (Scientology officials say they were concerned because they were on Richard Nixon's Enemies List, but that the members involved in the burglary were kicked out of the church.)
Despite such setbacks, however, Hubbard seems to have worked comfortably on 19th Street. Upstairs in the museum is a pleasant two-room office furnished in 1950s style, and included among original artifacts are a briefcase and an enormous globe. A period specimen of Hubbard wear—tweed jacket, black pants, and a salmon silk tie—is encased in glass. On the wall hang framed degrees awarded to Hubbard by the Hubbard Association of Scientologists International and the Hubbard Dianetic Research Association.
The tour does not evangelize aggressively, although when I sneezed and apologized that I had a cold, Runyon offered cryptically, "We could do something about that for you." But the inevitable sales pitch arrived when we reached the top floor, which is dedicated to Scientology today. On display are large photographs of famous Scientologists (such as the late Isaac Hayes) and of the group's compound in Clearwater, Florida. As I examined the photos, Runyon caught a facial expression she apparently didn't care for. "You have an evil smile," she said. "What are you thinking?"
A four-minute promotional video shows young Scientologists extolling the religion's virtues (one adherent notes that the E-Meter "gets rid of negative emotions"), and adjacent to the screen hangs a statement by Hubbard: "A Scientologist is one who controls, persons environments and situations." I wondered what it meant, but didn't feel comfortable enough to ask.
As the tour wound down, I found myself with Runyon in a basement room, just off a hallway that is adorned with Hubbard's photos of the monuments in Washington. It was time for me to try out the E-Meter, the device that had caused the Feds to burst through the doors in 1963. I held a can in each hand and answered Runyon's questions. When she asked me about my job, the dials fluctuated wildly. Runyon said this showed it was a stressful topic.
She was right.